Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

08 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Science of Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

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“The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind,” Einstein wrote, “life would have seemed to me empty.” It is perhaps unsurprising that the iconic physicist, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” intuited something fundamental about the inner workings of the human mind and soul long before science itself had attempted to concretize it with empirical evidence. Now, it has: In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (public library), neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab, sets out to “get clear about ‘who we are’ as social creatures and to reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society. Lieberman, who has spent the past two decades using tools like fMRI to study how the human brain responds to its social context, has found over and over again that our brains aren’t merely simplistic mechanisms that only respond to pain and pleasure, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously claimed, but are instead wired to connect. At the heart of his inquiry is a simple question: Why do we feel such intense agony when we lose a loved one? He argues that, far from being a design flaw in our neural architecture, our capacity for such overwhelming grief is a vital feature of our evolutionary constitution:

The research my wife and I have done over the past decade shows that this response, far from being an accident, is actually profoundly important to our survival. Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response. The research that I and others have done using fMRI shows that how we experience social pain is at odds with our perception of ourselves. We intuitively believe social and physical pain are radically different kinds of experiences, yet the way our brains treat them suggests that they are more similar than we imagine.

Citing his research, Lieberman affirms the notion that there is no such thing as a nonconformist, pointing out the social construction of what we call our individual “selves” — empirical evidence for what the novelist William Gibson so eloquently termed one’s “personal micro-culture” — and observes “our socially malleable sense of self”:

The neural basis for our personal beliefs overlaps significantly with one of the regions of the brain primarily responsible for allowing other people’s beliefs to influence our own. The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.

Contextualizing it in a brief evolutionary history, he argues that this osmosis of sociality and individuality is an essential aid in our evolutionary development rather than an aberrant defect in it:

Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.

The implications of this span across everything from the intimacy of our personal relationships to the intricacy of organizational management and teamwork. But rather than entrusting a single cognitive “social network” with these vital functions, our brains turn out to host many. Lieberman explains:

Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being.

These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.

He goes on to explore three major adaptations that have made us so inextricably responsive to the social world:

  • Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.
  • Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.
  • Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescent refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.

The rest of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, which dives deeper into this trifecta of adaptations and their everyday implications, is absolutely fascinating — necessary, even. Get a teaser-taste with Liberman’s TEDxStLouis talk based on his research and the resulting book:

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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05 NOVEMBER, 2013

What’s Wrong with the Nobel Prize

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How come only fifteen women were ever awarded the prestigious accolade in science?

Inspired by this piece on the surprisingly dark origin of the Nobel Prize, Joe Hanson of the wonderful It’s Okay To Be Smart breaks down the inner workings of the esteemed accolade and discusses a darker aspect still — its chronic, hegemonic Middle-Aged White Man syndrome: Why was Rosalind Franklin snubbed? How come Alice Munro’s 2013 win made her only the fifteenth woman to ever win a Nobel in science? Isn’t it disheartening to hold Marie Curie, remarkable though she was, as such a dramatic outlier rather than one of many merited women?

Except for the size of the pile of Swedish krona you get, not much has changed about the awarding of Nobel prizes in, well, ever. This begs the questions: Is it time to overhaul the Nobel prizes? Do they really represent how science is done? And what are they for, exactly?

Complement with this visual history of Nobel prizes and laureates and this rare look at Alfred Nobel’s will.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2013

How to Watch the Un-sunlike Sun: Solar Eclipse Tips from Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell

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“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.”

Rarely does the dated phrase “heavenly bodies” come more vibrantly alive than in the event of a solar eclipse, when the Moon passes in front of the Sun from the vantage point of our planet and leaves our earthy hearts astir with awe for a few fleeting moments of transcendent presence with “the heavens” and their majestic motion. But to observe a solar eclipse is itself an art, one to which pioneering astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell was particularly privy.

In Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — which also gave us the her timeless insight on science and life, the story of her seminal comet discovery, and her reflections on education and women in science — Mitchell recounts with her characteristic blend of good-natured wit and wisdom her experience of observing the 1878 solar eclipse, for which she traveled to Denver along with several of her former female students:

In the eclipse of this year, the dark shadow fell first on the United States thirty-eight degrees west of Washington, and moved towards the south-east, a circle of darkness one hundred and sixteen miles in diameter; circle overlapping circle of darkness until it could be mapped down like a belt.

[…]

Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of science.

But for the distance from the large cities of the country, Colorado seemed to be a most favorable part of the shadow; it was little subject to storms, and reputed to be enjoyable in climate and abundant in hospitality.

My party chose Denver, Col. I had a friend who lived in Denver, and she was visiting me. I sought her at once, and with fear and trembling asked, ‘Have you a bit of land behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope?’ ‘Six hundred miles,’ was the laconic reply!

I felt that the hospitality of the Rocky mountains was at my feet. Space and time are so unconnected! For an observation which would last two minutes forty seconds, I was offered six hundred miles, after a journey of thousands.

Mitchell goes on to extract from the experience some practical advice on the art-science of such heavenly observation:

Persons who observe an eclipse of the sun always try to do the impossible. They seem to consider it a solemn duty to see the first contact of sun and moon. The moon, when seen in the daytime, looks like a small faint cloud; as it approaches the sun it becomes wholly unseen; and an observer tries to see when this unseen object touches the glowing disc of the sun.

When we look at any other object than the sun, we stimulate our vision. A good observer will remain in the dark for a short time before he makes a delicate observation on a faint star, and will then throw a cap over his head to keep out strong lights.

When we look at the sun, we at once try to deaden its light. We protect our eyes by dark glasses—the less of sunlight we can get the better. We calculate exactly at what point the moon will touch the sun, and we watch that point only. The exact second by the chronometer when the figure of the moon touches that of the sun, is always noted. It is not only valuable for the determination of longitude, but it is a check on our knowledge of the moon’s motions. Therefore, we try for the impossible.

She goes on to describe the specific process of her team’s observation — one made all the more impressive by the fact that these were all women scientists in an age when the science education of girls was practically nonexistent:

One of our party, a young lady from California, was placed at the chronometer. She was to count aloud the seconds, to which the three others were to listen. Two others, one a young woman from Missouri, who brought with her a fine telescope, and another from Ohio, besides myself, stood at the three telescopes. A fourth, from Illinois, was stationed to watch general effects, and one special artist, pencil in hand, to sketch views.

Absolute silence was imposed upon the whole party a few minutes before each phenomenon.

Of course we began full a minute too soon, and the constrained position was irksome enough, for even time is relative, and the minute of suspense is longer than the hour of satisfaction. [Footnote: As the computed time for the first contact drew near, the breath of the counter grew short, and the seconds were almost gasped and threatened to become inaudible, when Miss Mitchell, without moving her eye from the tube of the telescope, took up the counting, and continued until the young lady recovered herself, which she did immediately.]

What followed was a singular blend of rigorous precision and the kind of transcendence in which Carl Sagan found the spirituality of science. Mitchell writes:

The moon, so white in the sky, becomes densely black when it is closely ranging with the sun, and it shows itself as a black notch on the burning disc when the eclipse begins.

[…]

As totality approached, all again took their positions. The corona, which is the ‘glory’ seen around the sun, was visible at least thirteen minutes before totality; each of the party took a look at this, and then all was silent, only the count, on and on, of the young woman at the chronometer. When totality came, even that ceased.

How still it was!

As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the corona burst out all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it; extending less dazzlingly bright around the sun for the space of about half the sun’s diameter, and in some directions sending off streamers for millions of miles.

It was now quick work. Each observer at the telescopes gave a furtive glance at the un-sunlike sun, moved the dark eye-piece from the instrument, replaced it by a more powerful white glass, and prepared to see all that could be seen in two minutes forty seconds. They must note the shape of the corona, its color, its seeming substance, and they must look all around the sun for the ‘interior planet.’

But Mitchell’s most prescient and timeless reflection in observing the eclipse speaks poetically to the spirit of today’s “citizen science”:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals remains a fantastic read and is available as a free Kindle download, as well as in other free digital formats on Project Gutenberg.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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